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A black who works within South Africa's system

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To hear David Modiba tell it, there was nothing in this tumbledown black township before he took over. ``I've tarred roads, put in electricity, built houses,'' Mr. Modiba says expansively, tooling around town in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes. ``And you know,'' he adds, waving to some passersby, ``the people love me for it.''

Meet a man who sees himself as a savior of black South Africa. Deputy mayor since 1983, the diminutive Modiba looms large around here. Like any other good politician, he's part self-promoter, part dedicated do-gooder - qualities that ought to get him reelected in Wednesday's muncipal election.

Not in the eyes of anti-apartheid activists, however. To them, Modiba is a puppet of the white government in Pretoria, a stooge, a sellout. Their credo of ``non-collaboration'' means pushing for change on the outside. Participating in polls, they say, confers legitimacy on an illegitimate system.

And they say that's particularly true of this vote, which President Pieter Botha wants to use as a steppingstone to writing a new constitution. After elections, black councilors are supposed to meet in regional electoral colleges to pick representatives for a multiracial constitutional council. Mr. Botha reckons on working out a power-sharing system with the 28 million blacks here - who have no vote in national matters - without giving up full white power.

But the 39-year-old Modiba is one example of why 2,733 people would nonetheless risk the sometimes fatal wrath of radicals and run for office. Modiba figures he is beating the system: By getting in at the bottom, he betters black lives - but remains aloof from the Byzantine bargaining that's going on atop.

``I've never been used by the government,'' he vows, ``and I never will be.''

Politics, Modiba says, got him at an early age. It began with his grandfather's arrest here in this town west of Johannesburg. For resisting forced removals of blacks to government-created tribal ``homelands,'' the old man was banished to one himself. Five years old at the time, Modiba saw police pull his naked grandfather from the river where he was bathing.

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